WASHINGTON - Over the past half-century, the amount of time college students actually study - read, write, and otherwise prepare for class - has dwindled from 24 hours a week to about 15, survey data show.
And that invites a question: Has college become too easy?
Ashley Dixon, a sophomore at George Mason University, anticipated more work in college than in high school. Instead, she has less. In a typical week, Dixon spends 18 hours in classes and another 12 in study. All told, college course work occupies 30 hours of her week. Dixon is a full-time student, but college, for her, is a part-time job.
“I was expecting it to be a lot harder,’’ said Dixon, 20. “I thought I was going to be miserable, trying to get good grades. And I do get good grades, and I’m not working very hard.’’
Declining study time is a discomfiting truth about the vaunted US higher-education system. The trend is generating debate over how much students really learn, even as colleges raise tuition every year.
Some critics say colleges and their students have grown lazy. Today’s collegiate culture, they say, rewards students with high grades for minimal effort and distracts them with athletics, clubs, and climbing walls on campuses that increasingly resemble resorts.
Academic leaders counter that students are as busy as ever but that their attention is consumed in part by jobs they take to help make ends meet.
Consider George Mason, Virginia’s largest public university and a microcosm of modern academia. Some students care for dependents. Many commute to class. Seventy percent of seniors hold off-campus jobs. George Mason students spend 14 hours, on average, in weekly study, close to the national average.
Tradition suggests that college students should invest two hours in study for every hour of classes. The reality - that students miss that goal by half - emerged from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a research tool for colleges that examines the modern student in unprecedented detail.
The survey, first published in 2000, queries freshmen and seniors. It reveals that study time can vary widely by college and by major. Architecture majors, for example, study 24 hours a week, while marketing majors only 12.
The Washington Post asked prominent colleges in Maryland, Virginia, and the District to disclose their survey data on study time. Only at Washington and Lee University, in Virginia, did students report as many as 20 hours of weekly study.
Weekly study among seniors averaged 16 hours at the universities of Maryland and Virginia and Catholic University, 15 at American University, and 13 at Howard University.
Evidence of declining study was mostly ignored until 2010, when two economists at the University of California at Santa Barbara - Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks - brought the issue to the fore in a paper titled “Leisure College, USA.’’
They found previous research, part of a longitudinal study called Project Talent, that showed students of 1961 spent about 24 hours a week studying.
By contrast, the typical student today spends 27 hours a week in study and class time.